AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File
Tuesday, July 3, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Controlling the center of the ice is one of the most important aspects of hockey, and the Golden Knights should do it extremely well next season.
Vegas had solid depth at the center position last season, but entering the 2018-19 season, the depth chart is even more loaded with talent.
The Golden Knights added to an already-stellar group that included William Karlsson, Erik Haula, Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare by inking veteran free agent Paul Stastny to a three-year, $19.5 million deal on Sunday. They also have a stash of players who played center earlier in their careers before moving to the wing out of necessity with the Golden Knights in Jonathan Marchessault, Oscar Lindberg and Ryan Carpenter.
“We do like having centers,” general manager George McPhee said. “You can move centers around the lineup, you can have centers on the wing, you can’t get wingers to play center.”
The future is also bright at the position, with first-round picks Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki looking like potential stars, and other young prospects Jake Leschyshyn, Lucas Elvenes, Ivan Morozov and Paul Cotter all also waiting for an opportunity.
Strong center play is one of the biggest indicators for success in the NHL. In the salary cap era (starting with the 2005-06 season) the Stanley Cup-winning team averaged 143 points from its top two centers.
Ten of the last 12 Stanley Cup champions got at least 120 points from their top two centers, with the only exceptions being the 2010-11 Bruins (119 points) and 2014-15 Blackhawks (109 points). Some of those combinations include Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter in Los Angeles, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp in Chicago, and Evgeni Kuznetsov and Nicolas Backstrom in Washington last year.
Last season, the Golden Knights got 133 points from Karlsson and Haula. The number could increase this season with the addition of Stastny.
“He’s a really talented, skilled guy,” McPhee said. “He’s a playmaker and you always want playmakers. It’s hard for goal scorers to score if they don’t have playmakers. He does that. He’s a real good person, good solid pro.”
The 32-year-old has amassed 646 career points — 220 goals and 426 assists — and is coming off a solid 53-point season that started in St. Louis and ended with a playoff run in Winnipeg after a trade-deadline deal.
His best season came in 2009-10 when he registered 20 goals and 59 assists for 79 points. Stastny was 24 years old that season so it might be a bit too optimistic to hope for those numbers in Vegas, but an improvement from his solid 2017-18 season wouldn’t be surprising.
He will likely play on the second line, where he’ll be surrounded by quick, talented goal scorers. Whether it’s Alex Tuch, Tomas Tatar or even Haula after a potential move to the wing, Stastny will have plenty of weapons.
“Just looking at the kind of players that they have, a lot of speed, a lot of goal-scorers, and that to me I feel I fit well with that,” Stastny said. “I’m one of those guys that help the defensemen get the puck out of the zone and find it in my hands as quick as possible. When you play with players like that, players that want the puck in their hands as quick as you can, you come in late to support them.”
The breakneck, transition-heavy system implemented by coach Gerard Gallant suits Stastny’s playmaking ability, and was one of the main reasons he chose to sign with Vegas.
“I think they play such a high-paced game, aggressive, and everyone is involved in the game, not just one line,” Stastny said. “It’s all four lines. When you teach that philosophy, you create a lot of chances, you create a lot of turnovers, which gets you the puck. I like playing teams that are aggressive and play on their toes and teams that aren’t afraid to make mistakes.”
One of the Golden Knights’ biggest flaws in their first season was the lack of defense played by the second line. Vegas’ top-line trio had stellar plus-minus numbers with Karlsson (plus-49), Marchessault (plus-36) and Reilly Smith (plus-31), but the second-line forwards were among the worst on the team.
Haula finished 35th out of 35 total skaters that played in 2017-18 for Vegas with a dismal minus-16, and James Neal and David Perron weren’t much better with minus-11 and plus-1, respectively.
Stastny has finished with a positive plus-minus in eight of his 12 NHL seasons, including in each of the last five. He brings defensive responsibility and gives scoring specialists like Haula and Tatar the opportunity to focus more on the offensive end.
Tatar struggled with the Golden Knights, scoring only five goals in 28 games after being acquired from the Red Wings at the trade deadline. But he’s previously shown the ability to score, with at least 19 goals in five straight seasons.
Playing alongside Stastny could help him find the scoring touch he lost.
“To have a guy like (Stastny) come into our team, I’m excited,” said forward Ryan Reaves, who played three years with Stastny in St. Louis. “You saw him in the playoffs. He’s a guy that slows the game down really well, he sees the ice. He can run a power play all kinds of ways. I think, the way he slows the game down, it opens ice up for his linemates. He’s going to do really well with whoever he plays with.”
The Oct. 4 season opener is still a long way away, but Vegas appears to have already upgraded at one of the most important positions in hockey. McPhee is thrilled with what transpired in free agency, and Stastny is equally elated to join a team where he should fit nicely.
“It was a win-win there,” Stastny said. “In the end, sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling. Sometimes it’s just one of those things that is the best fit, hockey wise, family wise and everything in between.”